Ohio health officials say omicron is not here yet but COVID hospitalizations are rising dramatically

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, is urging Ohioans to get vaccinated as cases and hospitalizations continue to spike across the state. Vanderhoff and other health officials spoke to members of the media in a virtual press conference Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health / Zoom]
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, is urging Ohioans to get vaccinated as cases and hospitalizations continue to spike across the state. Vanderhoff and other health officials spoke to members of the media in a virtual press conference Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health / Zoom]

COVID-19 cases shot up again in Ohio Thursday, with 9,131 new cases reported in the past 24 hours, and hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH.)

The northern region, which includes the Cleveland and Akron metro areas, has been especially hit hard, ODH director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said in a press conference Thursday.

“Currently, we’re seeing the highest incidence of COVID-19 cases in the northern part of the state, with the highest concentration of hospitalizations in the northeast corner of Ohio,” he said.

The delta variant, the highly contagious variant that resulted in a previous surge in late August, is still the predominant strain of the virus spreading in Ohio, Vanderhoff said. No cases of the new omicron variant have been detected in the state yet, he added.

Very little is known about the omicron variant at this point, Vanderhoff said. While it appeared to spread very quickly in South Africa, where it was first detected, most of those who contracted the variant were not yet vaccinated, he said.

The state reported 366 new hospital admissions Thursday, according to ODH data, and hospitals are approaching capacity due to the increase in patients and staff shortages, said Dr. Andy Thomas, chief clinical officer of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Almost every hospital really doesn’t have that same elasticity that we had maybe this time last year, to really be able to expand capacity on a short-term notice when there’s a flood or a surge of patients in your local region,” Thomas said. “[They're] really capacity-constrained not just for COVID patients, but for patients that have a heart attack or patients that have a trauma that, maybe in the past would have been taken care of at their local hospital, but now those patients are going to need to be moved to a different community.”

Hospitals are now transporting patients to different regions in the state to make sure they have enough space for all patients who need care - not just those who have COVID-19, Thomas said.

Akron hospitals are particularly overwhelmed and will soon begin sending patients to hospitals in the central and southern areas of the state, Northeast Ohio health officials said Wednesday.

“The whole northern region of Ohio is seeing the brunt of the COVID spike right now,” said Beth Gatlin, spokesperson for the Center For Health Affairs, an agency that represents most Northeast Ohio hospitals. “Everything north of Canton is really, really being socked with COVID cases, in and amongst the community and in and amongst health care workers too.”

The uptick in cases is also driving up wait times in emergency rooms in the Cleveland area, said Dr. Steve Gordon, chair of the infectious disease department at Cleveland Clinic.

“It is affecting care. I think if you look at emergency room wait times, you probably have people that are abandoning care, so we’re seeing that critical point,” Gordon said.

The majority of patients becoming hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Gordon said. While there are some successful treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, these do not work for everyone, he said.

“Our best prevention right now remains vaccination,” Gordon added.

Vanderhoff encourages Ohioans to get vaccines and boosters to protect themselves against omicron and other variants.

“We really need people to take advantage of the opportunity to get their vaccine and get their booster, particularly as we look at the potential future threat of the omicron variant,” he said. “We have no indication that our vaccines will fail to have substantial protection against even omicron.”

Gordon at Cleveland Clinic added that the vaccines are especially effective in preventing severe disease and death, particularly if an individual has received their booster shot.

“We’re not looking for sterilizing immunity. If I walk away with a breakthrough with a cold, I’m comfortable with that. It’s the hospitalizations and death that are really the markers here for efficacy,” Gordon said.

Health officials are also sounding the alarm about COVID-19 cases in individuals who are pregnant. Many pregnant people remain unvaccinated but are at an increased risk of developing a serious case, said Carri Warshak, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UC College of Medicine.

“There are now consistent and alarming reports that the rates of severe COVID are much higher when infection occurs during pregnancy,” Warshak said.

Pregnant individuals are 2 to 3 times more likely to require mechanical ventilation, and  18 times more likely to require an ICU admission, she added.

The COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be safe for pregnant individuals, she added.

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